The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Laws which assured slave owners that runaway slaves would be returned had been in force since the ratification of the Constitution. Indeed, the Constitution required such laws. Decades later, however, many of these laws were unenforced in northern states and abolitionists actively helped runaway slaves flee ever northward to freedom. Slave owners, as part of the Compromise of 1850, pushed for the adoption of stronger fugitive slave laws. One section of the law is below.

Section 7

And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, either with or without process as aforesaid, or shall rescue, or attempt to rescue, such fugitive from service or labor, from the custody of such claimant, his or her agent or attorney, or other person or persons lawfully assisting as aforesaid, when so arrested, pursuant to the authority herein given and declared; or shall aid, abet, or assist such person so owing service or labor as aforesaid, directly or indirectly, to escape from such claimant, his agent or attorney, or other person or persons legally authorized as aforesaid; or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person, after notice or knowledge of the fact that such person was a fugitive from service or labor as aforesaid, shall, for either of said offences, be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months, by indictment and conviction before the District Court of the United States for the district in which such offence may have been committed, or before the proper court of criminal jurisdiction, if committed within any one of the organized Territories of the United States; and shall moreover forfeit and pay, by way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct, the sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost as aforesaid, to be recovered by action of debt, in any of the District or Territorial Courts aforesaid, within whose jurisdiction the said offence may have been committed.

Source and the full text of the Act

Questions for consideration:

  1. Who is targeted by this section of the Fugitive Slave Act?
  2. Does this law seem just or unjust to you? Why?
  3. Who are some specific Americans you have studied who might have been affected by this section of the Act?